A Coordinated Response to Addressing Elder Abuse

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Imagine you learn that a trusted relation has drained your grandfather’s bank account, leaving him without resources and his home mortgage about to be foreclosed.

Or that a drug-addicted sister has moved back in with Mom and Dad and has insisted –repeatedly — that your parents withdraw money from their ATM.  She has invited her drug addicted friends to move in and they’ve trashed the place.

Or that your beloved grandmother was sexually abused by a care-giver.

It’s enough to make you sick, yet it happens every day.

These, and other examples were in full display when I hosted a Lunch and Learn on elder abuse in Council chambers.   Specifically, I wanted to put a spotlight on these kinds of widespread abuse; and I wanted to highlight the coordinated, groundbreaking program that Seattle and King County has developed to protect some very vulnerable people in our lives. You can watch the whole Lunch and Lean here. 

When we think of people who need us, our minds most often go to little children, the sweet, wide-eyed darlings in our midst who are so easy to wrap up in our arms.

As part of our Age-Friendly Seattle program, I want us also to wrap our arms around the seniors who need our love and protection too.

The topic of age-friendly Seattle and protecting our seniors from all forms of abuse is particularly near and dear to me.  I witnessed how seniors can readily be victims of abuse, while caring for my dad through the end of his life.

At the age of 85 my father was fully managing his own life, beating me regularly at golf, and in my eyes, he remained a super hero. Unfortunately, that time slipped by and eventually the man who had been so strong in all ways needed to be cared for himself.

There are many types of elder abuse; physical, mental, neglect and financial exploitation. Here’s an example of the latter:

One day my dad –who was always physically fit – decided to join a gym.   How he got to the gym remains a mystery, but at 87 a national-chain gym roped him in to a one-year contract with all the bells and whistles; daily vitamins, personal trainers, fitness classes. At that point in his life there was NO WAY this made sense, but the gym convinced him it was a good deal.  Dad agreed to the contract and this national chain charged over $1000 to his Visa.

Luckily my husband and I saw the credit card bill.  We contacted the gym and explained the situation.  The gym administrator told us that Dad had willingly signed the contract, too bad.

Fortunately, we had the time, legal background and resources to fight these charges.  But it ultimately required the assistance of the State Attorney General and Consumer Protection Division to reverse the charge.  This was just one of many instances where I found people and businesses trying to take advantage of him. Organizations and political party representatives called Dad daily for money.  Sometimes he gave it which encouraged them further.  It broke my heart.

My dad was not alone in this struggle.  According to our King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, 1 in 5 elders nationally are victims of financial abuse, and seniors lose approximately $36 billion per year to financial exploitation.

If you find yourself or a loved one facing this kind of abuse, we have a new program that will directly help our seniors.

The Vulnerable Adult Program coordinates responses by Seattle Fire Department (SFD), Seattle Police Department (SPD), Seattle Human Services/Aging and Disability Services (ADS) and partners with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO), Adult Protective Services (APS), and other community partners. By working across departments, the program is one of the first of its kind, has shown to work and has the potential to grow.

The program has three goals:

  1. Improve the identification and reporting of vulnerable adults by Seattle Fire Department (SFD) the people who most often are called to help through 911;
  2. Provide a coordinated response to improve patient outcomes should the person be taken to the hospital or care facility;
  3. Improve communication among the partners involved in providing services to vulnerable adults as well as those who enforce our laws; SFD, APS, PAO, SPD and ADS.

Working in conjunction with the Vulnerable Adults program is the King County Elder Abuse Project that was formed in 2001 by my former boss, Norm Maleng, to prosecute vulnerable adult financial exploitation, neglect, sexual assault and homicide.  Today Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorneys Page Ulrey and Amanda Froh are leading the project to ensure those who commit these heinous acts are brought to justice.

Here’s why the Vulnerable Adult Program works: Firefighters and emergency medical responders are often the first to witness abuse or neglect. They are trusted within the community and are often allowed into residences where police or adult protective workers are not.

With this coordinated system, when a first responder witnesses or even has that “gut feeling” that something is off, they can report it online 24/7. A notification of that report is then sent to Adult Protective Services, Seattle Police Department, and King County Aging and Disability Services.  This allows for a free exchange of information to ensure the patients are receiving the care they need.

When SPD receives the information, they have a dedicated elder abuse unit to begin investigating the report. Seattle is the only city within King County with an elder abuse unit. With trained patrol officers and detectives, coordination is increased, victims are referred to appropriate services and cases are passed to the prosecuting attorneys with strong evidence to support prosecution so that the abuse and exploitation does not continue unchecked.

At the same time as SPD is conducting their investigation, Cathi Church and Audrey Powers with Aging and Disability Services step in to provide case management to the survivors of the abuse or financial exploitation. Church and Powers will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the survivors, refer them to resources and services, offer court accompaniment, and offer additional support and advocacy as the case requires.

Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorneys Ulrey and Froh are then brought in to prosecute the abusers and help coordinate additional care for the victims.

The care that is delivered is then tailored to fit the need of the patient but may include:

  • ADS Case Managers petitioning for a Vulnerable Adult Protection Order;
  • PAO freezing bank accounts;
  • ADS petitioning for guardianship;
  • ADS help finds a housing or care facility;
  • ADS can provide services such as meal delivery, medication management, house cleanup and provide other home services;
  • SPD and PAO coordinating the collection of evidence and prosecution of offenders;
  • Restoring the credit of the patient or finance management.

Until recently, first responders did not know what to report, or where to make the report, or even if they SHOULD report. It is a simple step but ensuring a report is made, opens the door to safer outcomes for elders suffering abuse and allows for all the possibilities listed above to occur.

This is the first coordinated program of its kind, and the system in place is being shared with cities across the region but it has room to grow and improve.

Our hope is that the program can be expanded to create a King County Elder Abuse Multi-Disciplinary Team.  The team would have dedicated staff creating a team to serve as a resource to law enforcement, vulnerable adult service providers and citizens throughout King County. This will lead for more cases being reported, more victims served, and more offenders held accountable. This budget season I will be advocating for this program and hope to see it come to fruition in 2019.

If you suspect that a crime against a vulnerable adult is occurring or has occurred, here’s what you can do:

  1. Report the crime to the Seattle Police Departmentby calling 911; and
  2. Report the crime to the Washington State abuse hotline: 1-866-ENDHARM (1-866-363-4276).

If you are concerned about the well-being of a family member, friend, or neighbor, you have three options:

  • if you believe that an adult is unable to care for him or herself (e.g., not eating, living in filth or in hazardous conditions, call Adult Protective Services(206-341-7660)
  • If you need advice, information, and referrals, including caregiving information call Community Living Connections(toll-free 844-348-5464)
  • if you have tried to contact a loved one repeatedly, and they have failed to respond or you think he or she may be in danger, call the Seattle Police Department(non-emergency 206-625-5011) to request them to check in.

Read more about the Age-Friendly program on my blog here:  http://bagshaw.seattle.gov/2018/03/16/age-friendly-respect-and-social-inclusion/

In the last year of his life, at 91, Dad moved in with us in our downtown Seattle condo. That year was the greatest privilege in my life; my dad, husband and I grew even closer and we got to share many hilarious moments that I will cherish forever. At the same time, it was an extremely challenging time. Being a caretaker for an adult parent comes with good days and bad and I am immensely thankful to our fire fighters, other emergency responders, and those who have worked to create systems of care in place to support our seniors across our city and county.